The Forward Towards a New Spring series of blogs began on April 19 with “A Different World Struggling to Be Born.” The second post in the series was published on April 30 under the title “The Search for a New Center.” The following is the third installment in the “Forward Towards a New Spring: A Different Church for a Different World” series.
WITNESS IN A CONFUSED WORLD
José Gregorio Hernández was baptized around a year ago at Lake Richland Chambers. José is a part of the Alpha Community (Alpha Comunidad Hispana), a Hispanic faith community at FUMC Waxahachie. Recently, the Alpha Community held another worship service at Lake Richland Chambers. José opened the service with an inspiring testimony of faith in Christ. After a full worship service of praise music, testimony, preaching and prayers, seven people were baptized, including an entire family. This is a living, breathing example of a transformational narrative that spotlights our Wildly Important Goal (WIG) of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in action.
|To view more photos from the Alpha Community event, go to The Alpha Community Facebook page.|
This lakeside event depicts the counter-cultural (for the so-called “Western World”) and emerging make-up of a different church for a different world. The hope of the Gospel in North America lies with reclaiming the clarity of a Christian witness, which is profoundly counter-cultural and explicitly (emphatically!) transcends the political divide with a recovery of the historically Christian stance of being “in but not of” the world.
A Different Church is Being Born
At this juncture, I invite the reader to pause and reflect on the post-Christendom world in which we find ourselves. During the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st, the cultural domination of Christianity in North America and Northern Europe has gradually diminished. This slow steady transformation has been marked in the United States by the accelerating decline of the “mainline” (i.e. Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, American Baptist) denominations that once held cultural dominance. Holdouts to cultural decline are often marginalized or now themselves in numerical decline (e.g. Southern Baptist). Others in the more extreme, politically right-wing segment of churches represent a confusing mishmash of semi-heretical expressions of the Christian gospel (i.e., “prosperity gospel” and those claiming evangelical status but wedded to conversative politics above and beyond orthodox Christian positions).
Taking a long view, this is not a new trend but the outgrowth of enlightenment thinking salted liberally with a hyper-individualism (especially in the United States) and stirred with a copious hedonism. Beneath the surface of our cultural tensions and corrupted understandings of Christianity, a different church is being born for a different world. We can see reflections of this new church in the exponential rise of the Christian movement in China and the nascent but rapidly growing Christian communities in Iran. For those with a Wesleyan heritage, this slowly emerging different church is an echo of the class meeting cell group church of early Methodism and especially the earliest (pre-Constantinian) Christian movement in the Roman Empire.
A few years ago, the noted historian and author Tom Holland wrote a fascinating article on his own transformation over the years. I quote him at some length.
“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.
“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
The Return of Radical Christian Behaviors
A different church for a different world will slowly return to a radically Christian way of behaving towards those with which we disagree or are in some conflict. Rather than a raging involvement in the political sphere, those who publicly claim the label of Christian will offer a different way of living. The classical virtues of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) yoked with an unapologetic publicly expressed allegiance to Jesus as Lord will move to the forefront.
Consider how the early Christians responded to the barbaric excesses of the Roman Empire. They did not resort to political action committees but lived at peace with their neighbors while exhibiting the highest standard of moral behavior. They explicitly rejected a “whatever feels good” epicureanism and denounced a gnostic “secret knowledge” based on excessive individualism. They did all of this while living at “peace” with their neighbors.
Apostle Paul’s advice to the Romans is instructive.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. . . Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. . . Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:1-2, 9, 12, 14-18)
It is telling that those early Christians did not embrace the passive peace of moral indifferentism. Where possible, they engaged in social reform taking a leading role in ending the barbarism of the gladiatorial arena and steadily working to reduce slavery. (See Philemon) Jesus was Lord of life, all of life! This means a very different hierarchy of allegiance far beyond and way above, class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference and, especially, personal political conviction.
Being Christian involves a very different cultural witness to a confused world. Christian history teaches us on how to offer a Christ-focused witness. It begins and is anchored to allegiance to Christ as Lord.
“The first known account of Christian martyrdom in north Africa records events in Carthage in 180. Seven men and five women from the inland town of Scilli were brought before the proconsul Saturnius for refusing ‘to swear by the genius (guardian spirit) of the Emperor.’ The proconsul begged them to ‘have no part in this madness.’ But they persisted. The trial transcript related how one of the martyrs, Speratus, retorted: ‘The empire of this world I do not recognize; but rather I serve that God whom no man has seen or can see with human eyes.’ When the proconsul offered them time to reconsider, they refused it. And when the sentence of death was pronounced, ‘they all said, “Thanks be to God.”’
In but Not Of the World
We as Christ-followers are challenged to embrace a very different counter-cultural way of living that transcends all modern typologies and groupings.
By way of illustration, I offer a story shared by a friend on such receiving such a witness in her life. She writes,
“I was blessed to grow up spending much time with my grandparents. My grandfather was ordained in 1933 as Freewill Baptist Minister (Arminian in theology) and licensed in 1935 as a Preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He would preach two Sundays in the community church as their FWB pastor and two Sundays as the Methodist pastor. He would tell you the best day of his life was baptizing 44 people in the creek near that old church, some Baptist and some Methodist… he was happy to let God sort them out. He was a firm believer in the power of God’s sanctifying grace. He would manage to work in the words of asking God to sanctify him and those around his table during every mealtime grace. . . . He actively practiced and pursued the Means of Grace. In his old green vinyl recliner, he would study John Wesley’s sermons and his old red -letter Bible. He and my grandmother would have prayer time as I sat in floor playing. I never once heard their prayer time not include the scripture verse [Revelation 3:16 – “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”] as my grandfather pursued sanctification: [He would pray:] Lord God, if there is any place where I am neither hot or cold, show me Lord. Let my yes be yes and my no be no. If I am found to be lukewarm… spit me out of your mouth, so that I might find correction in your abiding love. Lord do a work in me and my family where we might desire nothing but entire sanctification.”
Today, we are called as Christ-followers to offer a witness to a morally confused world. By necessity it will be different from any contemporary version of casual cultural (or nominal) Christianity. It will not be easy. Yet, I remind myself along with you the reader, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5, NRSV)
There is more to say, much more, but it will wait for a later date. On an intensely practical level, I am deeply convicted that the recovery of a shining witness, a light on the hill to a confused world, will not be bred in solitude. John Wesley was right in mimicking the first Christians. We must be more intentional in small group (class meeting!) learning, nurture and accountability.
Our WIG reporting is first and foremost on the narrative stories of Gospel transformation! More recently, as we emerge the shutdowns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have changed the reporting and accountability metrics. They are:
- number of small groups engaged in discipleship formation;
- professions of faith and baptisms (which includes those in a restored relationship; and
- average worship attendance both in-person and online (listed separately) plus the total.
The Order is important! We will grow in the faith with a deeper witness only through committed small group relationships and encouragement. As we struggle with returning to worship and offering a witness to a confused world, we must construct a different church for a different world. Yes, this is akin to building the plane while we fly it, and it is not nor will it be easy. Still, as Wesley famously put it, “the best of all is that God is with us!”